Military-backed Mapping Project in Oaxaca Under Fire


A University of Kansas professor is under fire for a mapping project in Mexico partially funded by the U.S. Defense Department, as colleagues in the field of geography are calling for an investigation, while growing local opposition to the project leaves it in peril.

ImageZapotec communities demand geographers leave Oaxaca; U.S. geographers call for investigation

A University of Kansas professor is under fire for a mapping project in Mexico partially funded by the U.S. Defense Department as colleagues in the field of geography are calling for an investigation, while growing local opposition to the project leaves it in peril

Professor Peter Herlihy, lead geographer for México Indígena, a participatory mapping project allegedly intended to empower the largely indigenous populations of Oaxaca, Mexico in light of land reforms enacted in the 1990s to promote privatization, has been accused of violating ethical norms of the field and using scholarship as a tool for intelligence gathering for the U.S. government.

“The fundamental issue is that they have been accused of gathering sensitive data with funding from US military intelligence (and in all likelihood shared that data with US military intelligence), without indicating the source of their funds and plans for data-use with their research subjects at the time of obtaining consent,” said Ohio State University Professor Joel Wainwright.

Wainwright and colleague Professor Joe Bryan from the University of Colorado-Boulder, both geographers, co-wrote a letter on March 15 to the president and vice president of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) requesting “an inquiry into a potential violation of the ethical norms of our profession.”

The two geography professors were compelled to write the letter after reading a communiqué sent out in January by the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) claiming that Prof. Herlihy did not disclose the funding and relationship provided by the Foreign Military Studies Office, a research center focusing on counterinsurgency that also runs the controversial Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan where anthropologists were embedded with military units to conduct research to advance U.S. military objectives-a program the American Anthropological Association denounced.

México Indígena is part of a larger program called the Bowman Expeditions, a project conceived by Herlihy’s colleague and fellow University of Kansas professor Dr. Jerome Dobson, which looks to send geographers all over the world to conduct field work in an effort to improve Washington’s intelligence gathering capabilities. The AAG had its anual meeting in March in Las Vegas but failed to answer the letter’s (now signed by more than 50 people) call for an investigation. The AAG did decide to form a task force to review and possibly modify the organization’s Ethics Statement.

“When you don’t tell people who belong to a racially or economic marginalized group that you are doing research funded by the military and that has direct bearing on potential military activities, that is exploitative. Not only does it treat marginalized populations as objects of research rather than as political subjects, it also places them at considerable risk of political reprisals and even bodily harm,” said University of Colorado’s Bryan.

Bryan and Wainwright wrote a follow-up letter on April 14 regarding the AAG’s decision to form a task force. In it they petition the AAG to investigate:

“(1) the evidence that [Professor] Herlihy revealed his funding source at the time of obtaining consent; (2) the extent that the FMSO shaped the design of the research itself; and (3) the extent to which [Professor] Herlihy has made the results from the research available to FMSO personnel.”

The AAG’s Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group sent a letter to the organization’s Executive Board endorsing Bryan and Wainwright’s letter. The IPSG’s letter states: “We took this action after receiving the March 17 statement by the municipal authority for the Oaxaca community of San Miguel Tiltepec [something Bryan and Wainwright cite], which asserted it had not been fully informed of FMSO involvement, and called on the research team to ‘cease and desist’ and return the project data.” The IPSG co-chairs who wrote the letter also requested that the AAG “pass a resolution strongly recommending that the University of Kansas conduct an inquiry into the Bowman Expeditions / México Indígena project, as part of its Institutional Review process…[because] Setting the record straight should be welcomed by all sides in the debate.”

Let the Communities Speak for Themselves

The long awaited communique from the Zapotec community of Tiltepec was made public on March 17. As the ‘flag-ship’ of the México Indígena project in Oaxaca, where a ‘successful’ mapping survey of community lands had been overseen with full participation from the community and the results posted on the México Indígena website. Professor Dobson, in his letter entitled “Let the Indigenous People of Oaxaca Speak for Themselves”, reported that “[The Tiltepec Comisariado] said they were highly pleased with the results, especially the maps, and asked the team to continue working with the community.”

But when the community in question did speak for themselves, it was to repudiate México Indígena.

“We, the citizens of the community of San Miguel Tiltepec, through our Municipal Authority and Commissioner of Communal Goods, would like to let you know our position regarding an investigative project called México Indígena, begun in 2006 and finished in July of 2008, which produced a map containing information regarding place names as well as other cultural and geographical information furnished by people in our community…Information has been circulated in different news media and on the internet, alleging that our community agrees with the results of the investigation, when we were not even aware of what was going on. These statements were made by researchers from the México Indígena project (Peter Herlihy) and the president of the American Geographic Society, Jerome Dobson. For the reasons stated above, we want to made our disagreement perfectly clear with regards to the investigation carried on in our community since we were never duly informed of the true aims of the project, the uses of the information furnished, or the sources of financing.”

In this devastating blow to the México Indígena project the community go on to demand that México Indígena, the American Geographic Society, the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) of the United States Army, the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, and the University of Kansas, as well as all other agencies “whose participation has not come to our attention,” give the maps back to the community, destroy all information about the community in their possession and remove the maps from their website. They also demand a public apology “for having violated our rights as indigenous peoples and for having violated the very norms that appear in the Code of Ethics of the American Geographic Society that you profess to respect.”

A month later, the maps of Tiltepec are still on-line on the México Indígena site, and neither Dobson, Herlihy or
México Indígena have responded. No apology has been issued yet.

Due to the furor surrounding the controversy, the issue has being taken up on a national level. Opposition deputy Carlos Martinez Martinez from the PRD party and representative from Guelatao, Oaxaca, brought up the matter to be debated in the Mexican Congress, demanding that the México Indígena project be investigated at a federal level.

Back in the U.S., Professor Jerome Dobson attempted to get elected President of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) at its annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Questioned on the matter of the Tiltepec demand for
México Indígena to “cease and desist and return of the data”, Dobson’s response was evasive, passing the buck onto Peter Herlihy.

“I was in some of the villages, I was not in Tiltepec. There’s no question in my mind that people knew where the funding was coming from, that was clearly communicated to key people – do they want to say that now, apparently not…So I’m just befuddled by why this has reached this point. I know that the initial charges by Aldo Gonzales were false…I’ve seen the video of the press conference of the discussion by the commissario of Tiltepec but I also know what was happening when we were there and Peter was there… I know Peter is to be trusted, so if he said it, I believe it.”

The AAG voted Dobson’s Presidency bid down.

“This issue is a defining moment for the AAG and for U.S. geography and geographers in general,” wrote the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group, putting the gravity of the situation into perspective. “Our reputation is now at stake in many Indigenous communities. The AAG should not be seen as doing little to address their legitimate concerns, at a time when the whole world is watching.”

For the IPSG, this is a critical first step towards dealing with geography’s murky past relations with indigenous peoples, and hopefully a beginning towards building a better present and future.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Oaxaca, representatives of the Zapotec communities affected and their resident NGO UNOSJO, are relieved that their voice is being heard.

“It’s great that these things are finally becoming public knowledge, especially in the U.S.,” said Juan Perez Luna, “It is great news that they voted against Dobson in that AAG meeting and he didn’t get rewarded for lying to the world. But this is not over yet.”

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at Ramor Ryan is an Irish journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico who wrote Clandestines: the Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press, 2006).